Books versus Ebooks

I love science fiction and futuristic ideas.  I love computers and neat gadgets.  I love reading.  So, you’d think I’d love ebook readers.  I’ve owned several, including a Kindle, but I’ve sold or given them away.  I’m still anxious to have another ebook reader, but I’m not so much waiting for the ultimate ebook reader as I’m waiting for the revolution in publishing that will create super-books that have to be read on an ebook reader.  Right now ebook readers have a few conveniences that might appeal to some bookworms, like being able to change the font size, carry many books around at once, going green and saving trees, but for the most part, reading an ebook isn’t different from reading an old fashion book.

What I want is an ebook like the magical books we see in Harry Potter movies, where the pages have moving photos and words and letters dance with animation.  I love reading about science and history and I believe that adding multimedia to the words I read would create a quantum leap in learning fun.  Actually, web pages are heading more in this direction than ebook pages.  Take for instance my blog here.  I can add videos, photos, maps, music to my page to spice it up.  I can link to other pages all over the web.  These additions are still clunky, so the page isn’t seamlessly animated like a book in a Harry Potter story, but I’m sure WordPress.com is working on that.

Last year I was at a book giveaway where I picked up several modern high school textbooks.  They were stunning productions, taking the potential of the printed page further than I’ve ever seen before.  No current ebook reader can come close to duplicating what they can.  If the iPad had a 15” screen it could, and if the layout was adapted, its 9.7” screen, it could theoretically compete well.  The iPad represents a new generation of ebook readers, and it has the potential for being a fantastic device.  Will it become the fabled Dynabook, we’ll have to wait and see.  Tablet computers have been around for awhile, but no one has really programmed the content to showcase the design.  The iPhone is a huge success because programmers maximized the design of their networked programs for the 3.5” screen.

Whether writers and publishers jump on the tablet ebook potential is a whole other story.  I was thinking about buying a Kindle 2 or a Sony ebook reader, but after seeing the iPad I doubt I will.  The iPad’s larger full color screen, able to show high definition video, play sound, and computer animation makes me think I could have a Harry Potter magical book.  But remember, the iPad is worthless without the content.  I’m surprised Steve Jobs didn’t commission a writer to produce an ebook that showcased the iPad’s real potential.  If I was just going to read novels, I’d get a Kindle.

I recently reviewed The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong.  It has 34 pages of footnote citations.  I own this book in hardback and unabridged audio.  I’d like to have an iPad edition that has both the text and audio narration built in, and hyperlinks to the full pertinent portion of the texts to all the footnote references.  Armstrong summarizes the work of hundreds of individuals over thousands of years.  I’d like links to their original work (it should all be in the public domain).  Also, if her research for the book included documentaries and interviews, I’d like the videos and sound recordings added.

But most of all I’d want two extras that I haven’t seen before, even on the web.  First, since the book is about The Bible, I’d like her annotation of The Bible presented and for each verse I tap with my finger I’d want Armstrong’s text related to that passage, and a listing of links to all the people who offered commentary on that verse that Armstrong reviewed.  Second, I want a time-line.  Armstrong is summarizing thousands of years, so I’d like a year by year listing of when various portions of The Bible was written, related history happened, or commentary took place.  That way I could read the text of Armstrong’s book in three orders:  As it was published in print, in time order, and in Bible passage order.

I’m sure other people can think of other features to add to this super-book version.  For example, having a fun trivia type game to test me on content would be an another extra feature.  Hell, another cool idea just popped into my mind.  Since The Bible has spawned endless denominations of Judaism and Christianity, I’d like a family tree of denominations showing how each sect got started and by whom.  All the philosophers and theologians Armstrong mentions created a spider web of interconnected ideas, with many branches forming new churches.

Essentially what I’m asking for is what’s already in the book that Armstrong wrote and her notes, annotated with what she read and studied to write the book.  I’m just asking to see the same information from a variety of angles, and to follow different paths through the information.  For example, Armstrong gives us a taste for many Christian thinkers, like Origen, but because her book is short, she flies by these philosophers rather fast.  Including the Wikipedia entry for each person mentioned would also be helpful.  This is the second book I finished this month that mentions the Christian theologian and heretic Origen, the other being The Rise and Fall of Alexandria by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid.  Neither paint him as well as his Wikipedia entry.

This would not be practical as a printed book.  I’m not even sure if EPUB formatting can handle it.  But when publishers start selling books like this, then people will see the obvious value of an ebook reader like the iPad.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the iPad is special.  I think HP, Asus, Acer, Toshiba, Samsung, MSI and other computer makers will quickly take over the market and create iPad like devices that are better and cheaper.  They might all be called iPads, like all copiers are called Xerox machines.

Ebooks should revolutionize the textbook and non-fiction book industry.  Each book should have multiple ways to read through the content, and reading might take place with the eyes or ears or both.  Can you imagine a fully multimedia math book?  Or what about textbooks for studying French and Spanish?  What about a detailed history of astronomy?

So far I’ve been talking about super-books.  But what if a publisher took the 10 best books on a subject, like The Bible, and blended them together to for a super-super-book?  Certain books would have fantastic synergy is woven together.  This would be perfect for college courses too.  Also, use the same techniques to annotate fiction.  Imagine what could be done with On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

The reason why ebook readers haven’t been convincing buys to many bookworms yet, is because they haven’t presented the potential of Reading 2.0.  Or is it Reading 14.0 by now?

JWH – 1/31/10

5 thoughts on “Books versus Ebooks”

  1. I’m not sure I’m into animated ebook pages that much. The animations are a distraction, and that is the last thing I need when I’m trying to read.

    Otherwise, I more or less agree with you – getting different angles and approaches to the information we’re given would definitely make the experience of acquiring it much more fascinating.

    1. Well Triinu, I wouldn’t wanted animation in my regular reading either. But kids might love it. However, I can think of times when animation might even appeal to adults.

      Studying mathematics might be helped by animation because processing an equation involves a certain amount of movement that if animated could show how things worked.

      Studying a language, like Spanish, could use animation. If the tablet has a microphone, the ebook could ask the reader to pronounce a sentence, and then visually show the speaker’s inflection with some kind of animation, like a voice analysis graph.

      When studying physics, say working out the flight of a rocket, showing all the math involved in animation would be cool. Teaching geometry would be particularly fun animated.

      I like reading a book while listening to the audio version. It would be helpful that as the words are spoken the words on the page are highlighted.

      1. You’re right there. Animations would definitely facilitate learning – but viewing them in the reader should be optional. The reason I mentioned this in the first place is that some people have a harder time concentrating on the text when there are flashing, moving or even just bright colorful images next to it. It might not be a matter of short attention span – some people (like me) just have a low level of latent inhibition, which makes it hard to block out anything that is currently unnecessary to the eye or ear.

        I believe interactive ebooks should be designed with these people in mind, because there are more of them out there than one might think (and even people with great concentration skills need help every once in a while). I don’t even know how many great web pages I have stopped visiting because all the bells and whistles on them did not allow me to focus my mind on the great content.

  2. “What I want is an ebook like the magical books we see in Harry Potter movies, where the pages have moving photos and words and letters dance with animation”

    That kind of thing would certainly make me more interested in considering an ebook reader, that’s for sure. Whether iPad moves somewhat in this direction or not remains to be seen, but I do believe a company like Apple is more likely to produce something like this than a bookseller like Amazon or BN.

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